Creative writing for the physician: "Tincture of Humor: The Lighter Side of Medicine" presented by Pegasus Physicians at Stanford
By Joe Ferguson
After 25 years of continuing education seminars, I can say that I have been able to keep up with emergent diagnostic technologies, new treatment methods, and changes to practice laws. For all their attempts to keep me abreast of new information, however, continuing-education providers have treated me as if I were a hard drive--delete old file, upload new one, re-start program. Believing a health-care practitioner is complete because he or she has acquired more knowledge is like thinking a computer is better simply because it has a larger hard drive--it may be able to hold more information, but the ability to process it remains the same.
The other day I learned about a literary event that was being held on the Stanford University campus with an unusual twist--all the authors were physicians. The event was called Tincture of Humor: The Lighter Side of Medicine and took place in the Cantor Arts Center Auditorium. It featured readings by five presenters--two surgeons, two psychiatrists, and one medical student--from The Pegasus Physicians at Stanford.
The Pegasus Physicians at Stanford was founded in 2008 by a group of physicians who are also creative writers. It has sixty members from all branches of medicine who participate in monthly meetings, workshops, and regular readings. They write poetry, fiction, fictionalized memoirs, op-ed pieces and educational texts for the lay public with the intent to broaden public understanding of the science and art of medicine. Their goal is to “to bring the insights of humanistic arts to the practice of medicine; to inform creative writing by the practice of medicine; to educate medical students and young physicians in the humanistic dimensions of medical practice; and to celebrate the lives of our patients through our writing.”
I had a chance to meet, and then correspond with, one of the group’s founders Hans Steiner. I asked him what role he believed creative writing can, or should, play in the professional development of a physician or health-care professional. “Accurate empathy is one of the greatest tools in medicine,” he told me. “We can teach and learn it by helping students and doctors refine their capacity to tune in by getting them to write stories about patient encounters. These force the physician to slip into their patients’ minds.”
I asked Hans if he thought creative writing should be part of the standard medical curriculum. “Yes,” he replied. “This is why we involve students and trainees as early as possible in our working groups.”
When queried about whether creative writing should be part of the continuing education requirement for physicians or other health-care professionals, Hans told me, “Some boards in medicine certainly think so, and my own bias is in line with that. Another benefit accrued for doctors is that writing about your experiences is not only fascinating and makes you aware of aspects of the human condition which you have never thought about, but it also helps us wrap things up, putting behind us the horrible load of human suffering witnessed by us on a daily basis. It helps us remain competent as physicians who are involved with those we care for.”
The youngest reader that night was medical student Lauren Pischel. I asked her why she got involved with the group. “I feel writing has proved to be one of my coping mechanisms for my journey through medical school,” she told me. “It is a way that I can pick apart and try to understand what emotions I am having as I am learning to become a doctor.”
When I asked Lauren why the program was important she told me, “Because it fosters the arts in medicine which in turn allows doctors--or medical students--to turn back to the heart and meaning of things. I feel like it is very natural for over the course of your training to become accustomed to suffering or pain and the enormity of what you see and feel as a doctor. It is often easier to just accept that as your new normal. I think that writing is one way that allows doctors to exercise their empathy a bit more and to fight again the process of becoming jaded.”
I left that evening impressed. Here was a group of physicians attempting to better themselves and their practices through the inclusion of the arts, something I wish had been included in my curriculum, and something I would like to see more of now.
I’ll finish with this short portion from Lauren Pischel’s poem On Fainting:
Water is then given to me in a clean urine container
Because cups aren’t allowed in the OR.
And I think:
Sometimes things come back together and you no longer have only a cheek to simply suture upon but rather a face that is…there.
Sometimes, in certain moments, you are just overwhelmed and you don’t know why.
And you can see the wholeness again.
Tincture of Humor: The Lighter Side of Medicine was supported by the Medicine and the Muse Program, Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford School of Medicine.